Technologists who have worked for and with the government say the change in presidential administrations has sparked new interest in public-sector tech efforts, and the moment is perfect for it.
Shortly after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, officials added an easter egg to the code of whitehouse.gov — it said, “If you’re reading this, we need your help building back better.”
It was a small, mildly gimmicky thing aimed mostly at encouraging technologists to apply to the United States Digital Service, which soon thereafter noted it had been inundated with interest. The easter egg, however, was just part of a deliberate effort to emphasize the importance of gov tech as the new administration arrived. In addition, the Biden transition team included experienced technologists on its agency review teams, and within Biden’s flurry of early executive orders, more than a dozen had specific language related to mechanisms for service delivery, a core area of government tech work.
What it all speaks to — according to stakeholders who have worked in and around federal government tech efforts for years — is a renewed and very public surge of interest from private-sector technologists in working with the federal government supported by the new administration.
This interest can be quantified, too. For example, Coding It Forward is a nonprofit group that aims to create new ways for young technologists to make a social and civic impact. One of the chief ways Coding It Forward accomplishes this is through its Civic Digital Fellowship, which connects students with federal government tech internships, having placed more than 200 participants within 12 different federal agencies since launching in 2017.
Rachell Dodell — the group’s co-founder and executive director — said that interest has been strong from the start. A spike has occurred, however, with the arrival of the Biden administration. The last two cycles of fellowship applications under Trump numbered 800 and 1,000, respectively, while the first cycle following Biden’s election netted roughly 1,700 applicants.
Dodell credited the new administration for working to channel the energy of young Americans with inclusive messaging, while also noting that the COVID-19 crisis has starkly emphasized the need for better governmental service delivery online — a powerful motivating factor.
“It’s not very hard to go online and see a news article about broken insurance sites, vaccine registration, unemployment delivery, etc.” Dodell said. “The crisis has put a big spotlight on the work that needs to be done at all levels of government.”
Indeed, the vast and clear need for help is the other major component of the surge of interest in gov tech work right now. Essentially, there is a new administration in the White House being more proactive about recruiting and empowering technologists, while at the same time the nation fights to come back from a crisis that starkly illustrated the real world implications of government digitization struggles.
Amanda Renteria — CEO of Code for America (CfA), a nonprofit and nonpartisan group at the forefront of the American civic tech movement — also pointed to both the Biden administration and the lessons learned from COVID-19 as flashpoints for the country’s government technology ecosystem. Renteria said she was thrilled to see the new administration include so many technologists on its transition teams, which could hardly have come at a better time.
Over the past year, Renteria noted a surge of interest in the work that Code for America helps enable at all levels of government too, fueled by increased political awareness and a shared sense of responsibility in communities nationwide. One of Code for America’s chief endeavors is its network of localized brigades, which carry out tech projects at the community level.
“We were worried our brigades would get tired right now,” Renteria said, “and we’re seeing exactly the opposite.”
The reason is that government at all levels has opened to technologists who want to help, greenlighting digitization efforts in days that used to take months or years to be approved. The community at large also has a heightened expectation of what can and should be done by the government with technology.
From Renteria’s perspective, a major transition has happened, moving from the days when she had to explain CfA’s vision to a new time where the work is widely expected. People, she noted, used to think it was impossible to expect a text saying your tax return has arrived, but now they are in large numbers using government websites to register for vaccine appointments.
“I’m not painting a vision anymore,” Renteria said. “This work has become really tangible to people.”
All of this is not to discount work done at federal tech agencies during the Trump administration within government organizations like the United States Digital Service as well as 18F.
Angelica Quicksey — who has worked in public sector tech for more than a decade and has experience with local gov tech in San Francisco and Boston — said there is a resurgence of interest with reinforcements coming into the federal gov tech ecosystem, yet the work never stopped under Trump as many stuck around to support essential services that had to be delivered regardless of who was the president at the time.
“There were a lot of other different headlines the last four years that had nothing to do with building these systems,” Quicksey said, “but there were still people at USDS and 18F doing the work.”
Waldo Jaquith joined 18F in September 2016, weeks before Trump’s election win. Jaquith worked as a procurement technologist with the group until April 2020.
“If we had any less competition for open positions at 18F [during the Trump administration],” Jacquith said, “I was not aware of it, and there was definitely a strain of people saying now is a really important time to serve.”
What did seem to change, he noted, was the number of tech positions overall within 18F during those years, which by his estimation decreased between 2016 and 2020. After departing 18F, Jacquith went on to serve on the Biden transition team. Jacquith said that every single agency review team within the transition had at least one experienced technologist on it, which was “amazing.”
He and others interviewed for this story said that the Biden administration has worked hard to include technologists at the table throughout, and they do not expect that to change, potentially facilitating better cooperation between agencies, an expansion in the number of tech jobs within the federal government and a sharing of successful federal gov tech projects across agencies as well as with state leaders.
“There are a bunch of things that are really valuable that have been hidden, not intentionally,” Jacquith said, “but there’s been no sense of, ‘oh my god, this is useful and how do we pre-emptively make this available to everybody?’ That could change.”
If the government does expand its cooperation and its number of overall tech jobs, those who train the technologists of tomorrow are ready to funnel talent to the public sector today. Cori Zarek is the executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, and she said she has seen “an incredible interest and demand” for public-sector opportunities from students graduating Georgetown’s programs.
If the federal government continues to rethink how it recruits technologists while also demonstrating tangible results and stoking inclusive interest — even with something as simple as an easter egg in its code — this could all make for a bright and powerful future for government technology work.
Sha Hwang — chief operating officer and co-founder of the gov tech company, Nava Public Benefit Corporation — lost one of his colleagues to the new administration, Rebecca Piazza. Piazza was formerly Nava’s vice president of program delivery, and she will now be serving as senior advisor for delivery in the U.S. Office of the Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.
Hwang said the loss of Piazza was bad for Nava but very good in terms of what it suggests about the administration’s commitment to tech work moving forward.
“It’s really encouraging to me as a citizen,” Hwang said, “that the Biden administration is creating roles like adviser for delivery, recognizing not just policy but how we will keep promises at the business level within the lived experiences of the people who are affected.”